How Past Trauma Affects Current Relationships (And What You Can Do About It)



You probably know someone in your life who ends up in the same type of relationship with the same type of person over and over again. You might wonder why, after they are hurt by the end of one relationship, they put themselves in a position to get hurt again. Or, you might know someone who never seems to get close to anyone and they keep everyone at a distance. From the outside, it doesn’t seem to make sense. However, there are many complicated reasons why a person might unknowingly (or knowingly) put themselves in the same hurtful position over and over again. For some people, this could be due to a trauma that they experienced in their past.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that research has found that more than two thirds of children 16 and under in America experience a traumatic event. Traumatic events, according to the APA includes, “sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, war experiences, natural and human-made disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses”.

For people who have suffered some kind of trauma in their past, such as growing up in abusive home or with an alcoholic parent or witnessing some other kind of trauma, the impact on their relationship patterns can be varied. For example, the U.S Department of Veteran’s Affairs says that “Survivors of man-made traumas often feel a lasting sense of terror, horror, endangerment, and betrayal. These feelings affect how they relate to others. They may feel like they are letting down their guard if they get close to someone else and trust them. This is not to say a survivor never feels a strong bond of love or friendship. However, a close relationship can also feel scary or dangerous to a trauma survivor.”

As The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies notes, “Memories and feelings of betrayal, loss, shame, secrecy, violation, and threats to bodily integrity may surface or become part of later relationships.” In other words, even though the trauma happened in the past, the emotional effects still linger for many people. Because of this past betrayal, they may find it hard to trust as easily again–keeping people at a distance or avoiding getting close to people who remind them of their trauma. Putting their trust in someone again after that trust has been broken seems too risky. For someone who has been hurt in the past, it can seem easier to keep people at a distance rather than risk getting hurt again. Or, if they think they are getting too close to someone, they might push them away. Oftentimes, this is done unconsciously too.

Others might find themselves in the same kind of unhealthy relationship over and over again because they’ve never experienced a different type of relationship and expect that all relationships must be like the same. Or, they might feel that they have learned from their mistakes and won’t get hurt again.

Trauma in past relationships can also affect the way a person thinks and feels about themselves. For example, a person who has experienced child abuse may feel ashamed of what happened or may feel guilty for what happened in some way. Often, the abuser has told the victim that what has happened was their (the victim’s) fault. Or, they may have been told by their abuser that they are worthless, unlovable, or damaged and therefore unwanted.  This can lead to low self-esteem, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

And low self-esteem can negatively affect a person’s relationship. For example, someone might not think they are deserving of what we think of as a healthy relationship because of what happened in the past (even if it wasn’t their fault). While this isn’t true, because of their low self-esteem, the person might find themselves in a relationship where the other person has more control over what happens in the relationship. And, unfortunately, this could lead to another cycle of abuse. All of these factors can make being in a healthy relationship difficult and even confusing.

Fortunately, there is hope and help for those who have undergone childhood trauma. Not only is it important to acknowledge that a past trauma could be negatively affecting you, it is also important to seek healing from it. Psychotherapy can be an important part of that healing process. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies emphasizes that “It can be helpful to discuss traumatic experiences, feelings of grief, and relationship difficulties with a professional who is familiar with the complex effects of trauma. A therapist can offer a safe relationship for building trust and a sense of security.”

A therapist can help you process the impact the trauma has had on your and help you restore your self-confidence. The trauma you experienced in your past doesn’t have to negatively affect your current relationships. You can have healthy and meaningful relationships. Therapy can be hard work at times but it will help you develop happy, healthy, and lasting relationships. It’s worth it the hard work!

This article is not intended to be a substitute for or serve as professional counseling or treatment.

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